Your annual physical is filled with routine events such as urine tests, reviewing medical history, and checking blood pressure. And if one pioneering researcher has her way, a blood test that screens for ovarian cancer and detects the disease in its earliest—and most treatable—stages will soon be part of that trip to the doc’s office.
Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death from gynecological cancers in the U.S., says Janna Andrews, M.D., assistant clinical professor of radiation oncology at Winthrop-University Hospital and an oncologist in the greater New York City area. In 2013, there will be roughly 23,000 cases of ovarian cancer and approximately 14,000 deaths.
The five-year survival rate for the disease is less than 45 percent, mainly because it’s often caught in late stages since there are no effective proven screening mechanisms, Andrews says. On the flip side, when diagnosed at stage I, the five-year survival rate is closer to 90 percent—and that’s where this new blood test comes in.
Karen Lu, M.D., professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas, took annual blood samples of more than 4,000 women over an 11-year period to measure their levels of CA-125, a protein produced by a majority of ovarian tumors that’s thought to be an indicator of ovarian cancer.
Currently, the national cut-off level for CA-125 is 35—anything lower rarely receives a closer look or leads to a woman being referred for an ultrasound to check for ovarian tumors, but a higher number usually results in a woman being wheeled into the operating room to have her ovaries removed and checked for cancer, Lu says.
An annual blood test, as performed in her study, personalizes the approach, she explains. “Some women may have higher CA-125 levels their entire life. Others may have low levels but those levels might start to creep up and take a few years to hit the ‘one-size-fits-all’ level of 35.”
In the study, women who had sudden rises in their CA-125 levels met with a gynecologist and had an ultrasound. Ten of these women then underwent surgery. Four had ovarian cancer in an early stage, five had ovarian tumors that were either benign or classified as “low malignant potential” (they may become cancerous, but usually don’t), and one had endometrial cancer. Two women who had cancer actually had CA-125 levels lower than 35.
Lu is cautiously optimistic this blood test will soon become an annual screening for women, and others say it could help save lives.
“This personalized approach can take into consideration a woman’s risk factors for ovarian cancer, including genetic predisposition based on family history, age, a history of infertility, or endometriosis,” Andrews says. “This could be a huge breakthrough in ovarian cancer, a disease that has shown only a slight decrease in deaths in the past three decades.”
A larger study of the blood test is currently underway in the U.K., and results are expected in 2015. In order for the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force to give the blood test its stamp of approval, Lu says it has to be linked to a decrease in deaths.
Until this blood test or any early detection screening process is in place, make sure you know the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer: abdominal pain, bloating, and a change in bowel or bladder habits. If any of these last for more than two weeks, schedule an exam with your doctor.